Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos

cover art for An Informal History of the HugosDo you like reading what other people have to say about books? I know, silly question, because here you are reading a book review in a blog dedicated to book, music and other reviews. That makes it easy for me to recommend this book to you.

It’s also easy to recommend because it’s by Jo Walton, one of our favorite authors here at Green Man Review. She’s a winner of Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards, and she writes in a voice that is smart and often funny, and a straightforward, reader friendly style. Also, she’s a huge fan of SF/F, and it comes through in this tome, which is subtitled “A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000.”

That word “personal” is an important one. This isn’t literary criticism, it’s an educated and opinionated spin through nearly a half-century of award winning books. The material in the book began its life as a blog by Walton on Tor.com. From 2010 to 2013, Walton’s posts surveyed the winners of the prestigious, fan-voted Hugo Awards and offering up her reactions to the winners and the nominees. She then took on the arduous task of turning that series of posts (along with comments by a handful of informed writers and editors) into book form.

In addition to a best novel for each year, Hugo awards also go to short-form fiction (novellas, novelettes, and short stories), magazines professional and fan, artists both pro and fan, fanzines, dramatic presentations, and sometimes more, although the list of awards has varied a lot over the years. But she’s mainly interested in the long-form books that were nominated and that won, because she feels that gives a good snapshot of what fans were thinking about and enjoying in a particular year.

As Walton says in her fine introduction, “I only looked seriously at novels, though I listed all the winners in all the categories. I talked about the short fiction sometimes … I am a reader. I’m really not qualified to say anything about the visual categories … I made no attempt to be impersonal or objective–indeed, the opposite, this was very much my personal assessment of how the Hugos were doing.” On top of that, when the other major awards in the genre started up – the Nebulas, Locus, the Mythopoeic Award and others (especially the Campbell memorial award for most promising new writer) – she ropes those in too, to see if she thinks they honored a book or story that the Hugo voters missed.

It’s a staggeringly complicated pile of data that Walton sifted through for this project, and it really turned out quite well.

If she hasn’t read one of the novels among the winners and nominees, she tells you that – and she vowed not to read anything that she hadn’t previously read just for this project. And in spite of what she said about not being qualified to comment on the visual category awards, she does very occasionally comment on them. Such as the year when all five of the nominees for Dramatic Presentation went to Star Trek episodes. She said she hadn’t seen any (not even “The Trouble With Tribbles”!!!), though she feels she has picked up plenty of information about them by cultural osmosis.

The comments, many of which are by some big names in the genre like Gardner Dozois and Rich Horton, are generally helpful and informative and cast light on some of the books that Walton is less familiar with. They often disagree with her opinions and each others, but politely and learnedly. She and her cohort of commenters discuss some of the problems and issues that are present in many of these books, especially misogyny, sexism, gender issues, etc., and give speak up frankly if they find that the way the authors wrote about such things make the books incompatible with modern tastes.

I feel like a giant nerd for enjoying a book like this so much! But like Walton (about 10 years earlier) I started reading science fiction as a pre-teen before I even knew what science fiction was. I read a lot that excited me, a lot that interested me, and many things that left me very puzzled with questions that I didn’t even have the words or emotional maturity to formulate. Some books that everybody seemed to love left me unimpressed (like Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, the 1962 Hugo winner), and some left me cold from the first chapter and I never bothered to finish (like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, 1963’s winner). I thought there was something wrong with me, but Walton reacted much the same way, and the way she elucidates her feelings helped me feel better about mine. And then there are those that I, like Walton and lots of others, have read and re-read and still love and enjoy (even though we have some qualms about them), like Dune and Ringworld.

And maybe best of all, Jo Walton’s An Informal History of the Hugos has given me a huge list of science fiction books that I’ve never read, so that I can look for them and read them in the future. It was really fun to read through these lists and remember some of the SF books I read very early on, in the ’60s and ’70s as I was going through some of the classics from the 1950s and early ’60s – and then again when I was became a pretty active SF reader again in the 1980s. There was a big part of the 1970s and early ’80s when I was in college and then a young adult with a busy job and family life, when I didn’t read many new books of any kind, and this gives me some pointers on what to go back and read that I missed during those years.

You should read this book if you are a fan of SF and fantasy in the second half of the 20th century. I bet it’s in your local library, and if it’s not, request it! (We’ve previously reviewed Walton’s books Among Others, Farthing, and Tooth and Claw, which you might enjoy, too.)

(Tor, 2018)

Gary Whitehouse

Gary has been reviewing music, books and more at the Green Man Review since sometime in the previous Millennium. He lives in a mostly hipster-free part of Oregon, where he enjoys dogs, books, music, the outdoors, and craft beer, cider, and coffee.

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